In a room full of treasures out the back of Te Papa, Shane James holds up one that almost got away.
It's a curious-looking but strangely beautiful wooden funnel, intricately carved with Maori-looking patterns, that was on the brink of being auctioned in Melbourne in 2009, when it was seized by Australian authorities and returned to New Zealand because it is "taonga" – a treasure.
James is kaitiaki (guardian) of the Maori collection at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and the object he's holding reverently, white gloves and all, looks just like a korere, the traditional Maori feeding funnel used so tohunga and other high-ranked men could be fed without touching their food.
Except it's not a korere. It wasn't even made in New Zealand. It's a brilliant fake, made in the 1920s by a notorious English furniture maker, fraudster and occasional thief called James Little.
Yet when the Ministry of Culture and Heritage learnt of the Melbourne auction, they swooped just the same. Even as a fake, the funnel comes under schedule 4, category 9 of the Protected Objects Act (1975). It tells "important stories about the international market in fake Maori objects" and so on. It's our fake and we're holding on to it, thank you very much.
This is the same Protected Objects Act that made headlines in late 2010, when Sir Edmund Hillary's widow, Lady June, sent five of Sir Ed's old Rolex watches to an auction house in Switzerland.
That auction collapsed under a double-barrelled assault: Sir Ed's children, Peter and Sarah, said the watches were theirs. And the ministry rang Lady June with the bad news that one of the watches was of great historical importance and thus had legal protection under the act. Not only should she not be selling it – she shouldn't even have let it leave New Zealand without permission.
The ministry didn't need to press the point, but illegal exporters face up to $100,000 in fines or five years' jail. When push comes to shove, the ministry has the draconian right to seize ownership of an illegal export, and transfer it to the name of its chief executive.
The act was lurking in the shadows, too, when the daughters of Kiwi war hero Charles Upham announced they wanted to sell his Victoria Cross and bar for millions.
The ministry declined an export application by the daughters in 2006, the medals were placed on a list of "objects of national significance", and the eventual sale to the British Imperial War Museum went ahead only because the museum loaned them straight back to New Zealand for the next 999 years.
So if you read the papers, it looks as if every couple of years the keepers of the Protected Objects Act stir from the deep, show their sharp teeth, then sink back out of view. There is, in fact, a little more to it than that.
The legislation was first passed in 1975, though back then it had the wonderfully creaky title of the "Antiquities Act". The modernised name was part of a 2005 overhaul that increased fine maximums from $2000 to $100,000, incorporated international treaties on the return of illegal exports, and changed the way ownership of newly found Maori artefacts was considered. The act still applies only to objects that are 50 years and older.
The ministry's protected-objects specialist, Ashley McKenzie White, says the granting of export permission can turn on subtle distinctions.
The Charles Upham war medals – unique, valuable and historically important – were no-brainers, but not every medal is that special. McKenzie White is currently assessing a family's application to take their grandfather's World War I Maori Battalion medals with them to Australia.
"It's a really fine line: do we have enough examples of those in New Zealand to tell that story? Do we let them go because they're their family's objects?"
Other exports are temporary inter-museum loans, such as when Te Papa loaned the skeleton of racehorse Phar Lap to a Melbourne museum in 2010. On another occasion the owner of a rare McLaren traction engine – the second of its kind ever made – wanted to show it off at Britain's annual Great Dorset Steam Fair, where thousands of steam-power obsessives gather to marvel at antique machinery. The owner got the licence, but only by agreeing to temporarily cede ownership to the Crown while abroad.
Similarly, a US-based Kiwi won the right to keep his whalebone patu (club) at his New York home on the condition that when he died it would return to New Zealand.
Keeping old New Zealand stuff out of the clutches of foreigners is only part of the act's purpose. Another important strand is the power it gives to the ministry to monitor certain protected objects within New Zealand, especially Maori treasures and artefacts.
Since 1976, anyone who chances on a Maori artefact, from a shard of pounamu (greenstone) to a complete waka (canoe), has been obliged to report their find to the ministry, which then arranges for a museum such as Te Papa to hold it on behalf of the Crown while iwi ownership is figured out (rules for objects unearthed before 1975 are different – see sidebar).
Maori artefacts – known as "taonga tuturu" in an almost untranslatable term capturing the notion of a treasure that's been lost and found, or handed down – turn up all the time. More than 200 have been registered with the ministry since 2006 alone.
Often it's small stuff: there are 7000 adzes in Te Papa's 35,000-piece taonga collection. But there's big stuff too, such as the six-metre waka dug out from the bank of a creek in Golden Bay late last year. Issues of where the waka came from, and who now really owns it, could take years to resolve – though in the meantime, the local iwi has taken on a guardianship role.
Late last month Shane James, accompanied by McKenzie White, gave the Sunday Star-Times a tour of a huge storeroom of taonga tuturu out the back of Te Papa in Wellington.
He opened the visit with a karakia then showed us around his treasure trove, bubbling with enthusiasm for the objects and their stories.
Towering carved slabs line the walls; floor-to-ceiling shelves are crammed with weapons and storage vessels and carvings. There are hundreds of shallow drawers each holding a particular class of object: fishhooks in one; pounamu jewellery in another; yet another full of decorated wooden pins used to fasten feather cloaks.
Taonga tuturu are a special sub-category of protected objects. They have to be 50 years or older, but are also things that relate to Maori culture, history or society, or are believed to have been made, or used, by Maori. That casts the net pretty wide.
Wide enough to catch that beautiful fake feeding funnel. "In the day," says James, "there wouldn't have been many people able to tell it wasn't the real thing. He fooled big collectors for ages."
Little was a character, says James. He used to steal stuff from museums, replace them with his own fakes, and sell the originals. "He spent time in jail. He got caught. He did it again. He was a furniture maker on hard times and he saw an opportunity."
It makes perfect sense, though, for a fake to be kept alongside "real" taonga tuturu.
"Even though Little is English, he has that connection, because he was copying works from New Zealand over in England. His subject matter was Maori; that's where it becomes culturally important to us, as part of the history."
For similar reason, the collection includes a bizarre hybrid: a traditional Maori waka huia (jewellery container) that had four legs added by an English carver so it could sit on a mantelpiece rather than hang from the ceiling. Hardly "authentic" in the narrowest sense, but it tells a story.
Not everything's a treasure, says James. "There was a guy who came in with a whalebone item. He said the person he bought it off said it was hundreds of years old. I said `yep, the bone is maybe hundreds of years old but the workmanship is recent. Give it to your children'."
As the 50-year cut-off sweeps thorough history, arguments over what can be called a taonga tuturu will only get more complex, says McKenzie White.
A carved coffee table made in Rotorua in 1960 for the Pakeha market is arguably taonga tuturu, yet you could still find one in a second-hand shop. Some works by Maori artist Ralph Hotere are pushing 50 – are they taonga tuturu, or bog-standard protected objects, or neither? And what about Maori-influenced artworks by a Pakeha like Dick Frizzell – they'll be 50 in a few decades.
You get the feeling that rather than being anxious about the chaos that awaits her, McKenzie White rather relishes these art-historical puzzles.
Back at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage offices in central Wellington, chief executive Lewis Holden paints a rather more prosaic picture of what the Protected Objects Act means in practice.
If you're a Hillary or an Upham you might need to watch your step, but for most of us, if there's some old junk lying around the house, it's probably not a "protected object" simply by virtue of its age.
If there are 400,000 50-year-old Crown Lynn teacups out there, we can cheerfully watch the first 399,950 or so leave the country, says Holden.
"And even those objects that are caught within the net – the vast bulk we would still say `go with our blessing'. Then for a very small number we will say `sorry, it remains your property and you can sell it in New Zealand and do what you want with it, but you are not able to take it out of the country'."
Curiously, although the ministry can force someone to return an object from overseas, it can't tell them what to do with it once it's back. "We've got no control over what a private owner does with it. So in a fit of pique you could say `I'm going to stamp on my Rolex' or whatever."
Holden says the ministry doesn't have a lot of resources to devote to looking after protected objects. It instead relies on a network of curators, collectors and dealers for tip-offs about dubious sales or exports. Customs watches the border. McKenzie White and others keep a close eye on Trade Me and other online auction sites and a dubious sale will attract a stern email explaining the act.
Holden has had to take direct action to stymie an illegal export just twice in his three years as chief executive. The first was to retrieve the fake korere. The second was to stop Lady June selling the Hillary Rolex.
He won't say who alerted the ministry to the impending auction in 2010. But when he called Lady June to inform her of the watch's status, it was a "very pleasant conversation", and he had no need to mention fines or his right to claim ownership.
He told her that "in terms of the Protected Objects Act she was not entitled to export them and we would dearly like to be able to get them back to New Zealand. She was extremely co-operative".
The return of the watches was complicated, though – largely because the Swiss auction house Antiquorum wanted compensation for the halting of the auction.
Last week, Antiquorum's managing director, Julien Schaerer, told the Sunday Star-Times that when he got a fax from New Zealand telling him that one of the watches was a "cultural treasure" he thought it bizarre.
"If it was some kind of prehistorical bone that had been dug out from [the ground] – what I would call real cultural heritage – and someone was trying to sell it, then I would understand.
"But this was a completely different situation. It wasn't a question of them being some sort of public property that was being sold off, it was privately owned watches, and I'd never heard anything like it in my whole life."
In the end, said Schaerer, he halted the auction not because of the ministry's concerns, but because of the New Zealand court injunction casting doubt on which Hillary owned the watches. He confirmed the watches were only released for return to New Zealand after the payment of a "penalty for withdrawing".
"If there was any slightly shabby party in the whole affair it might well have been the Swiss auction house," says Holden.
Mostly, says Holden, light-handed regulation, and the constructive attitudes of collectors and traders and institutions around the world, mean that guarding New Zealand's treasures is a low-key affair. He has great faith in human nature.
"Generally speaking, people try to find a good solution."
LOOK WHAT I FOUND!
Although many countries have legislation to protect valuable objects, New Zealand is unusual in its approach to "taonga tuturu" – objects over 50 years old that also have Maori cultural significance.
Found before 1976: Finder's keepers. If an interesting artefact's been in the family for generations, it's probably yours to keep, give away or sell. Before selling it you must register it with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, who will allocate a unique "Y" number. It can be purchased only by a licensed dealer, authorised museum or registered collector within New Zealand (though it's easy to become a registered collector).If you want to take your taonga tuturu out of the country for any reason, even if you're emigrating, you need to apply for permission.
Found between 1976 and 2005: All taonga tuturu automatically belong to the Crown, and you were meant to take it to the nearest public museum within 28 days of finding it. The ministry allocates "Z" numbers to post-1976 finds.
Found since 2006: Much the same except under the revised act the Crown tries to find the historic owners. This may be the local iwi, but rival claims are resolved by the Maori Land Court. For details on identifying, registering, trading or exporting protected objects see www.protected-objects.govt.nz
- Sunday Star Times